- The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America by Terri L. Snyder
Outspoken proslavery politician James Henry Hammond claimed in 1845 that he could not recall "a single instance of deliberate self-destruction" among slaves (155). Hammond's view, undergirded by the twin ideologies of paternalism and racism, was pervasive among antebellum white southerners. His denial about slave suicide bolstered the paternalist narrative that slaves were well cared for, content, and therefore had no reason to take their own lives. Racialized ideas about slaves' nature also informed beliefs about the rarity of slave suicide. Whites believed blacks were cowardly and thus lacked the fortitude to commit self-murder; they claimed that because slaves were intellectually and constitutionally inferior, they were impervious to suicidal impulses. White southerners' denials of slave suicide also served to blunt abolitionist accusations that conditions of slavery were so miserable that slaves committed suicide regularly to escape lives of bondage. Deprived of freedom, abolitionists claimed, slaves resorted to suicide as an escape from wretched, hopeless situations. Disavowal of slave suicide countered heart-wrenching antislavery narratives of slaves who killed themselves out of desperation.
The pervasiveness of the belief among whites in the antebellum South that slaves did not commit suicide bore little resemblance to reality, especially in early America, when, as Terri Snyder convincingly shows, self-destruction by African slaves and their descendants was common and acknowledged by whites. More strikingly, in early America, not only did Anglo-Americans concede that slave suicides occurred, but they often did so in admiring language, heralding such acts as heroic.
Snyder's monograph, The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America, is the first full-length treatment of suicide and slavery. The study raises the question, what do we learn by studying suicide and slavery? The short answer is, quite a lot. Slave suicides matter because "they illuminate the intimate circumstances, cultural meanings, and political consequences of enslaved people's acts of self-destruction in the context of early American slavery" (11). By examining the varied settings of slave suicide—on a ship en route from Africa, during the seasoning process on a Caribbean island, as a result of a conflict between master and slave, in the words of abolitionist tracts—we learn much about representations of the enslaved, the inherent contradictions within the institution of slavery, the ramifications of slave suicides, slaves' motivations for willingly ending their lives, and attitudes toward suicide of both the free and unfree. [End Page 471]
We also learn that while the notion of slave suicide was harnessed in the antebellum South by whites to further the proslavery agenda, it had not always been so. Snyder traces acts of slave self-destruction from the early days of the transatlantic slave trade through the early nineteenth century, showing how the enslaved forced their enslavers to grapple with the contradictions of slavery by intentionally taking their own lives. And because slave suicide could be interpreted as a challenge to slavery, whites had to navigate this tricky conundrum. For abolitionists, the path was clear: seize on acts of slave suicide as illustrations of the horrific injustices of slavery. Ending one's life became a justifiable alternative to living without liberty or under a cruel master. Indeed, a slave suicide was sometimes viewed as a heroic death. Those of the slaveholding class, however, who in the revolutionary era may have lauded the self-inflicted death of a slave for his or her commitment to freedom and honor, by the antebellum period denied slave suicide even existed. If slaves did not kill themselves, there was no challenge to mastery, no basis to abolitionists' charges of inhumane conditions.
Snyder is one of the first historians to consider a broad range of motivations for slave suicide rather than to view acts of enslaved self-destruction ideologically. She rejects the lazy temptation to interpret self-inflicted slave deaths reflexively as acts of resistance to institutional slavery, analysis she rebuffs as an "interpretative vacuum" (17...